The Origins of the Long War in Historical Context

The following is a review by Dave Alvey of ‘Resurgence’ published in the November issue of The Irish Political Review:

In the course of a hatchet job in the Irish News on Pat Walsh’s recently published book, ‘Resurgence—the Catholic Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’, and its companion volume, Catastrophe, Dr Robert McNamara, a history lecturer at the University of Ulster, stated:

“The comprehensibility of these volumes is not aided by the method that the writer deploys. Long quotations from books and documents, which will put off all but the most enthusiastic reader, are often followed by what can only be described as sweeping and curious conclusions” (Irish News, 28 July 2016).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! On the other side Pat Walsh is not greatly impressed with the practices of contemporary historians. He says:

“History is meaningless outside of con- text. The thematic and sociological approach favoured by ‘post modern’ Irish historians removes the historical context and makes any notion palatable, notions that would be absurd within their actual historical chain of causation” (Resurgence, p. 104).

This article will look at how historical context is treated in Resurgence and question the substance of McNamara’s criticism.


In the first six chapters of Resurgence Walsh is focussed on the context in which the Provisional IRA came to launch its war on the British state. At one point he refers to the content of Citizen Press, a news-sheet produced behind the barricades in 1969, as showing that, “what subsequently happened need not necessarily have happened” (p.32). His point is that the Citizen Press was distinctly un- republican, that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of the IRA as a community backed army. He shows that the Provisional IRA came to be formed as a result of a set of extraordinary events that, taken together, severely ruptured the political alignment of Northern Catholics.

Resurgence begins with August 1969. Walsh recounts the different outbreaks of conflict at that time and the responses of the two Governments, all the while noting factors that contributed to the later development of what he terms, the Repub- lican Army. The events he describes are: the initial unsuccessful attacks by Orange mobs, backed by the RUC, on Unity Flats in Belfast; British determination to intervene only in circumstances of complete breakdown; the defence of the Bogside over three days (12th-14th); Jack Lynch’ s ‘We will not stand by’ speech of August 13th; the attempted pogrom in West Belfast in the following days when 6 Catholics and 2 Protestants were shot dead and over 150 Catholic homes were burned down; the deployment of British troops in Derry and Belfast; Cathal Goulding’ s inflammatory press statement of August 18th on behalf of a barely functioning IRA; and the Downing Street Communiqué of August 19th in which Whitehall undertook to guarantee minority rights over the head of the Stormont sub-Government.

In the Introduction Walsh summarises his view of what happened in August.

“A defensive Insurrection was produced within the Catholic community in response to the going berserk of the Unionist repressive apparatus which had been spoiling for a fight since the Civil Rights movement had been getting the better of the publicity war, for the proceeding year” (p. 8).

Later, referring to the victory achieved by the defenders of the Bogside, he describes how the experience of communal violence changed the Catholic community.

“This (the defense of the Bogside, DA), combined with what was happening in Belfast, was something of a turning point in the life of the Northern Catholics. The Unionists had been held at bay and had their illusions of independent existence shattered; the British had been forced to re-engage with the Six Counties and the minority itself had shown it could achieve something momentous through its united efforts” (p. 21).

Walsh’s treatment of the events of August shows that both the British and Irish Governments lacked a clear understanding of the underlying cause of the communal conflict in Northern Ireland: the imposition by Britain of a system of devolved government, kept separate from the party political set-up in the UK, in which the majority subjugated the minority. It was not surprising, given their lack of understanding, that both Governments ultimately failed the minority community. Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath of August, Northern Catholics were cautiously optimistic that both Governments could be trusted to protect their interests.

An excerpt from a 1988 Irish Times interview with Austin Currie, quoted by Walsh, serves well as a pointer to the most fundamental mistake made by the Callaghan Government in dealing with Ulster. It reads:

“The Civil Rights movement wanted British troops in, but it should have been accompanied by a British political presence. The crunch mistake in 1969 was to keep Stormont, with Oliver Wright as the British government’s watchdog in the North. That was the crucial period in which the Provisional IRA was founded and gained momentum” (p. 57).

Walsh’s own account of the “detachment policy” (Britain’s insistence on keeping Northern Ireland at arm’ s length) shows how it undid any positive effect of the Labour Government’s intervention.

“The detachment policy was manifest in Britain’s desire to avoid Direct Rule at all costs; to pull its army out of the Six Counties as soon as possible; and to dither on legislating for the formal transfer of security to Westminster. The effect of this latter failure was to let authority seep back from Whitehall to Stormont, when the pressure slackened off from early 1970, as Catholics waited patiently on reform” (p. 41).

Walsh shows that the manner in which the British implemented policy in Belfast and Derry, with specific reference to allowing the ‘no go’ areas to remain, was as influential on subsequent events as their policy failures.

“Callaghan conducted a British withdrawal from the areas behind the barri- cades. This was not apparent to all as the British Army kept up a visible presence in Catholic districts by extravagantly patrolling in armoured vehicles for the media. Presumably, this was to reassure Unionists who were increasingly angered that the Catholics were being failed to be policed by the authorities and kept in place. However, when the media was gone and the motorised patrols had flitted the Catholic areas were ceded to the locals.

On the basis of the belief that things had settled, particularly within the Catholic community, Callaghan withdrew the apparatus of State from the Nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry while neglecting to give any political leadership to them. He left the Stormont regime in being as a façade in the hope that the Westminster intervention of August 1969 could be put in reverse. In leaving the Catholic areas of ‘Northern Ireland’ to their own devices immediately following the trauma of August, and with Stormont still functioning as a symbol of Unionist domination and a provocation to Catholics, Callaghan set up a situation in which something like the Provisional IRA could be generated” (p. 66).


Chapter 5 of Resurgence, ‘Dublin’s About Turn’, deals with the Arms Crisis in which Jack Lynch sanctioned the arrest of various individuals including Govern- ment Ministers whose crime was involve- ment in the implementation of the Northern policy of his own Government. Lynch acted under pressure from the British Ambassador to Ireland, Andrew Gilchrist, and his reversal of the previous policy had the effect of negating Dublin’s influence in the North. Dublin’s influence moved from being of central importance to the Defence Committees and other represent- ative bodies within the Northern Catholic community in the critical period from mid-August 1969 to April 1970 to being a compromised and distrustful outsider in the months thereafter.

Pat Walsh summarises the effect on Northern Catholics of Lynch’s volte face by quoting a sentence from the autobiog- raphy of an important figure in that com- munity, Paddy Doherty, the community leader who had led the defence of the Bogside. It reads: “Lynch reversed the government’ s policy of involvement in the North and created a vacuum which the Provisionals were only too willing to fill” (p. 122).

There is a great deal of insightful coverage of Dublin’ s role in Resurgence from references to the mistaken policy of Lemass, to the emptiness of T K Whittaker’ s moderation, to L ynch’ s inflammatory anti-Partitionism, but the purpose here is to evaluate Pat Walsh’s treatment of the historical context in which the Provisional IRA came into being. In the following excerpt from the Introduction Walsh pulls some of the main strands of his analysis together.

“After the August explosion something new was possible with the re-engagement of Britain with its ‘Northern Ireland’ region of responsibility and Dublin’s re- awakened activism with regard to the Six Counties.

But the new dawn was short-lived. The re-assertion of the arm’s length policy of W estminster and the withdrawal of Dublin under pressure from British diplomacy facilitated the emergence of a new force in the political vacuum of the North. That force, starting from a small nucleus, went from strength to strength and there is little doubt that it became, politically, the most effective thing that was ever produced by the Northern Catholic community—much more

resourceful in every way than the movement of the early 1920s” (p. 8).

The emphasis that Walsh places on context allows him to cut through a tangle of historical complexity and produce linkages between different happenings that enable readers to think coherently about the matters under discussion. That his conclusions jar with the official narrative is a point in his favour, given the anti-Sinn Fein preoccupation of that narrative. Incidentally, Pat Walsh makes deductions favourable to republicanism but his viewpoint is clearly independent.

Taken together, Catastrophe and Resurgence cover the many different aspects of the Catholic predicament in Northern Ireland over the best part of a century, a major undertaking that the author has completed with thoroughness and concision. In this short article I have taken a number of extracts from Resurg- ence relating to the context in which the IRA campaign took off. Readers can see for themselves that Walsh has explained it in a way that is comprehensible and coherent. Far from being “sweeping and curious” his conclusions are based on evidence and argument; his references to the considered judgements of Austin Currie and Paddy Doherty, both respected figures across the spectrum of Irish political opinion, show that he uses authoritative sources. The conclusions of Resurgence also fit with the direction of political development in the North, the consolidation of Sinn Fein as the voice of Northern nationalists, a phenomenon that the mainstream has found mystifying.

Regarding the substance of Robert Mc Namara’s criticism, I am obviously treating it with more respect than it des- erves. McNamara’s review had the single purpose of deterring people from reading a body of work that performs the function his own profession has defaulted on.

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